Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Legacy Department


Committee Chair/Advisor

Stockton, William

Committee Member

Rivlin, Elizabeth

Committee Member

McGrath, Brian


In this paper I argue that Shakespeare's Measure for Measure interrogates the performativity inherent in the exercise of law and sovereignty, ultimately revealing that internal contradictions within the early modern political system create the possibility for change. At the level of plot, the substitution of Angelo for the supposedly absent Duke highlights the impossibility of the law's attempt to personify justice. The same issue reveals itself in how one reads the text; there are two ways, for example, to interpret the Duke's declaration near the end of the play that there is 'more behind that is more gratulate': the temporally ambiguous signification of the word 'behind' can suggest, on the one hand, that the Duke's marriage solution--specifically his proposal to Isabella--simply repeats her traumatic encounter with the law embodied in Angelo. At the same time, he might be admitting (unwittingly perhaps) that justice must always be conceptualized as a future event, one that the performative legal structure cannot fully capture. While most critics must ignore this undecidability in the interest of their own interpretation, it seems to me to be the play's most important feature, ensuring as it does that the text (and the power structure depicted in it/constituted by it) is never stable. My paper thus explores a connection between close reading and politics that early modern scholars rarely acknowledge: while New Historicist critics have discussed the relationship between literary texts and institutions in the early modern period, my investigation focuses on the potentially radical consequences of textuality itself.



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